Strategies for managing children who wander
Wandering or absconding is a behaviour of concern that some children on the spectrum may engage in; however, the reasons why this behaviour occurs, and when it is likely to happen, can vary significantly.
This means that in order to reduce the occurrences of wandering and the potential for a child to find themselves in a frightening or dangerous situation, it is important to understand the triggers, have some strategies in place to mitigate the risks, and to find ways of replacing this concerning behaviour.
Why do children with autism wander?
As all children and teens on the spectrum are different, so are the reasons why they may wander. The behaviour can occur both when children are alone or when they are under the supervision of an adult.
Likewise, this behaviour can take different forms. Some children will bolt, either towards a particular place or thing, or away from some form of stimulus. They may be attempting to get to a favourite place, for instance, or seeking out a stimulus that they enjoy, like water. Alternatively, they may be attempting to avoid a particular stimulus, like noise or traffic, or they want to experience the attention that comes with being pursued.
Other children on the spectrum, however, may wander more aimlessly with no particular goal or location in mind.
It can often be the case that children wander when they are in new or unfamiliar environments, and as a consequence become disoriented or feel under stress. They may also be trying to avoid the demands of social interaction, such as they experience at school.
Nevertheless, what most children with autism who wander will have in common is that they likely don’t appreciate the dangers that this behaviour presents. Therefore, it may require interventions, strategies and the learning of new behaviours to help ensure that they don’t inadvertently put themselves at risk by absconding into dangerous places or scenarios.
Understanding wandering behaviour in children on the spectrum
The first step towards devising effective strategies to manage wandering is to understand the reasons why this behaviour may be occurring.
A behavioural practitioner or psychologist will likely be able to help in this process. These professionals can help to identify why behaviours of concern such as wandering are occurring, and then introduce and teach alternative new behaviours. This sort of intervention, known as Positive Behaviour Support (PBS), is based on understanding the function of the behaviour i.e., the purpose(s), or what the child is getting from wandering, and then introducing alternative ways in which they might achieve this.
This can over time lead to the wandering behaviour being replaced e.g., the child learns to tell a carer or teacher when they want to leave a place or situation. A key element of a replacement behaviour should be that it serves the same function but requires less effort and is more rewarding than wandering.
Using social narratives can also be a useful way of helping children who wander to understand the consequences of this behaviour and the importance of staying safe. Social narratives break down information in a clear and literal way, and can be used to explain the outcome of situations and events, e.g., highlighting the risks presented by large bodies of water, traffic, stranger danger, etc., as well as helping children to develop important self-care skills.
Positive reinforcement, which involves giving praise or a reward when new alternative behaviours are displayed, can also be effective as part of this process. For instance, you may use verbal praise and/or a reward when a child stays with you when visiting the supermarket, or tells a teacher when they are feeling the pressure of social demands at school.
It is helpful to remember that addressing behaviours of concern like wandering can take some time, but with a coordinated, well-planned approach using a range of interventions and therapies, the impact and frequency can be reduced.
How can you manage wandering behaviour?
Once you have been able to identify some of the causes for wandering behaviour, there are also some practical steps that you can take which might be helpful in reducing the potential for a child absconding.
Modifying the environment can be very useful in this respect. If a child tends to bolt or wander towards water, for instance, you could seek to avoid going to places where it is easy to reach or try to stay away from particularly loud environments if noise is a stimulus that causes them to bolt, e.g., you might change the time at which you go shopping so that you visit the supermarket when it is less busy, for instance. Alternatively, if there is a favourite place to which children wander, visiting that place regularly under a carer’s supervision may help to reduce the frequency with which they abscond.
The type of strategies that you can use to modify the environment will become clearer once you have been able to gain a better understanding of what is triggering this behaviour.
Wandering behaviour may also occur when children on the spectrum find themselves in new or unfamiliar environments, for instance when they are transitioning from primary school to secondary school. In such a scenario, enacting a clear and detailed orientation plan prior to the move may be necessary, meaning that the time required to help a child with autism become familiar with and settle into a new school environment could take longer than for a child not on the spectrum.
It may also be useful to have an emergency plan in place that you can activate if your child does abscond from school, home or another location. Depending on their age, their propensity to wander and the region in which you live, you can put a range of precautionary procedures in place. These might include:
- Having a clear photograph of your child with their name, address and other relevant details ready to share with police, your child’s school, neighbours and other people who might be able to help.
- A list of places to which your child has wandered before; it might be helpful to share the above information with staff at these places, if applicable.
- Helpful information that you can share regarding how your child might react to or engage with people who they don’t know. This can be particularly relevant for older children and teenagers, whose social interaction skills may make it seem as though they are being uncooperative or recalcitrant if confronted.
It will also be beneficial to teach your child what to do if they do get lost, e.g., who they should and shouldn’t speak to, where they should go, etc. Social narratives can be an effective tool in teaching these skills.